The BS column: Sherlocks of the Third World

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, April 3, 2006)

They make an odd assortment, the first fictional detectives to emerge at the turn of the nineteenth century. There was Edgar Allan Poe’s C Auguste Dupin, an intuitive thinker with a highly mathematical mind, who made his bones in Murder in the Rue Morgue in 1841.

Twenty years later, Mary Elizabeth Braddon introduced a villainous orphan, a helpless heiress and a mute detective in Trail of the Serpent . Mr Peters, her detective, was the world’s first disabled sleuth—he communicated through sign language. Braddon’s early but melodramatic detective novel was overshadowed by Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone , which came out seven years after Trail of the Serpent . By 1887, a violinist and cocaine addict had solved his first case in A Study in Scarlet . Over two decades later, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories starring Sherlock Holmes were world-famous when G K Chesterton introduced a small, dumpy, intellectual priest called Father Brown.

Today’s detectives are just as quirky; but the location has shifted, with interesting consequences. Kalpana Swaminathan delivered excellent Goan Gothic last year with an atmospheric murder mystery called Bougainvillea House . This year, she’s back with the first of a new crime series.

The Page 3 Murders stars a 63-year-old woman who reads Hans Gross’ Criminal Psychology by way of light entertainment, and is called L R—Last Resort—Lalli by the police. When we meet her, Lalli’s fresh from tracing a missing wife—”she was found in a truckload of fruit, evenly distributed in convenient bits between layers of alphonso mangoes, ripening on her way to export”. The Page 3 Murders mixes a Cluedo-style whodunit delightfully with Page 3 gossip, set at a house party in a seaside villa near Bombay. Lalli’s next appearance, according to Roli Books, will be in The Gardener’s Song , due out in 2007, and I’m seriously considering junking my Inspector Ghotes to make way for Last Resort Lalli.

Swaminathan’s detective, like Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano, rings clever changes on old stereotypes. If Lalli is India’s answer to Miss Marple and the once captivating, now increasingly tedious Precious Ramotswe, Camilleri’s cynical Italian inspector borrows from a venerable ancestry of police detectives up against the system. Montalbano appeared most memorably in Camilleri’s The Terracotta Dog ; in Excursion to Tindari , he is up against the frustrating bureaucracy of Italy’s police department (one of the few countries in the world that can match India red tape for red tape) and, more perilously, against Sicily’s rising New Mafia.

Both Lalli and Montalbano provide a refreshing break from the First World forensic specialists and hardbitten cops who make up the backbone of crime fiction today. But perhaps the most interesting detectives emerging today come out of the intersection of history, geography and crime fiction.

The star of Jason Goodwin’s The Janissary Tree is Yashim, eunuch in the court of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1830s Istanbul. He serves as historical guide, deconstructing the meaning of the harem and uncovering the bloody history of the Janissary corps who were once the military backbone of the Empire. He also stumbles across a corpse in a cauldron, discovers a deeply unpleasant use for steam baths, and for those curious about the exact nature of eunuch sexuality, offers an instructive glimpse at the difference between the completely castrated and the merely freelance.

His contemporary counterparts are many, but the two who made the most impact on me come from nearby countries. Two years ago, Colin Cotterill introduced an elderly Laotian sleuth in Dr Siri Paiboun (“reluctant national coroner, confused psychic, disheartened communist”) in The Coroner’s Lunch . In Thirty-Three Teeth , Paiboun deals with the death of the wife of a party leader and the discovery of the tortured corpses of Vietnamese soldiers, not to mention the intricate complications of party politics played Laos style.

Like Cotterill, Eliot Pattison uses the framework of the detective novel to bring the politics of another region into focus—his Skull Mantra is set in Tibet, and his sleuth is a senior Chinese official called Shan Tao Yun who was imprisoned as a traitor to the Chinese state. Shan Tao Yun, who spends his days breaking rocks alongside Buddhist monks and other local dissidents as part of the People’s 404th Construction Crew, is called in by the head of the prison camp to help solve the murder of a Chinese official.

The early detectives saw murder as a crime against god, a breach in the sanctity of the world. For their contemporary counterparts, murder and other crimes are an excuse to speak about the forgotten histories and neglected places of the world. You might call it the rise of the subaltern sleuth.





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